High profile and high stakes for Warrington

Dave Hadfield suggests Deakin's strategy comes with risks attached
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The Independent Online

Those sitting in the vicinity of the chief executive of Warrington Wolves rugby league club, Peter Deakin, heard a deep sigh of relief six minutes into time added on in last week's Silk Cut Challenge Cup tie at Salford.

An injury-time reprieve put them into the semi-final that formed the first stage of their aspirations for this season. You can plan as much as you like, but whether it comes off or not can depend on one pass, one ball planted down over the line as the other mob bray for the final hooter.

The reward for that escape is a meeting next week with Deakin's old club - and the inspiration for much that he hopes to achieve at Warrington - Bradford. In the way that so often happens, the same two sides meet in Super League at Odsal today, so Deakin's new teamget an early, double opportunity to measure themselves against the template.

"I think the Bradford Bulls have given a lead to the whole of Super League in terms of how to conduct yourself on and off the field," says Deakin, who, before his stint with Saracens, started the Bulls' bandwagon rolling. "They have reached the stage now where they can get a lot bigger, but only if the profile of Super League as a whole gets higher. That's why they need clubs like Warrington to grow."

And grow is what Warrington must do this season. "From a personal stand-point, I set some targets this season. One was to reach the semi-finals and the other was to reach the top five in Super League. If we can do that, it will be a success, because that will give us the commercial base from which to kick on next year."

Deakin has found this, his first full season in charge at Wilderspool, has been one of setting priorities and making compromises.

"You cannot do it all at once," he says. "We know the squad is thin, but it had to be that way. Our investment went into a few top-quality players like Allan Langer, Tawera Nikau and Andrew Gee. Under the terms of the salary cap, there was nothing left for any depth in the squad.

"But, if we can increase our revenue this year, that will come next season. I have always said that the third season will be the one to judge us on."

So far, the commercial indicators are encouraging. Sponsors are far more interested in the Wolves than they have been in any recent living memories, season-ticket sales have doubled, and in the one home Super League match to have taken place so far, against the London Broncos, gate takings were three times those for the same match last season.

Throw in the income from next Saturday's semi-final at Headingley and, possibly, from the Challenge Cup final at Murrayfield at the end of April, and Warrington are running ahead of all of Deakin's financialprojections.

The question, as their ultimately successful but still unconvincing performance at Salford showed, is whether the players are good enough to fulfil their part of the equation.

The salary cap has forced tough choices on most clubs, but Darryl van de Velde's squad looks particularly prone to being overstretched in some positions. If Jon Roper had not passed a late fitness test last week, for instance, the strapping young back-rower Ian Sibbitt would have had to play in the centres. And Warrington had no back-up props at all, so it is just as well that Gee and Danny Nutley performed so mightily for the full 80 minutes.

Van de Velde is rather better off this week, with another front-rower, Gary Chamber, added to his options after injury, but he must still envy the choice available to Bradford's Matthew Elliott, who has been able to leave out players of the calibre of Tevita Vaikona, Neil Harmon and the newly-signed Justin Brooker.

It is an enviable position, but, as Deakin points out, it was not achieved overnight. "From what I have seen so far this season, they are a very strong outfit, but they have been able to build on a very strong base of players.

"In less than 12 months at Warrington, I think we've taken the club forward, but it will take three or four years to get where Bradford are."